On the most recent Legal Value Network podcast, hosts Chad Main and Keith Maziarek interviewed Professor Richard Jolly from the Northwestern Kellogg School of Management about law firm leadership and how difficult it is to teach leadership skills to partners. Jolly uses the analogy of foxes versus hedgehogs. Where foxes are very adaptable to their environments and hedgehogs are animals who do one thing very well. They also go into the benefits of narcissistic personalities in the legal industry, but I may save that topic for another time.

The part of the conversation which caught my attention begins around the 31:50 mark of the podcast. Professor Jolly tells us how he realized that most people in law firm leadership did not want to be leaders. They most definitely did not want to be in leadership training.

There was, of course, the usual excuse of “it takes me away from billing time.” Jolly says:

“One of the things I remember, for years I was running leadership courses for law firms for partners. And, I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but it took me quite a number of years to realize that the partners didn’t want to be there. This was taking them away from their billable hours. I remember I ran this two-day leadership course for them. And it was a Friday and a Saturday, of course, I didn’t want to take away too much client time.”

So, problem one is minimized. Now on to problem two: What do you want to cover in the leadership training? Professor Jolly proactively addresses this issue with the law firm partners:

“I sent out a form in advance about what are your objectives what you want to get out of this training? And one of the lawyers, he wrote, and at the time I was devastated by it, but with hindsight it just makes you burst out laughing. He said, ‘My one objective is to avoid all roleplays.'”

Okay. We’ll be there, but I don’t want to do anything that may make me uncomfortable or expose any weakness in front of my peers. This caused Professor Jolly to come to realize why lawyers don’t want to be in leadership courses to begin with.

“lawyers don’t want to be leaders, they want to be the trusted experts, and maybe even the trusted advisors. That’s their professional identity. And I realized they didn’t want to be in leadership courses.” 

It makes sense if you step back and think about it. Lawyers aren’t there to lead clients, they are there to guide clients through a process. Advise them on the least risky manner in which to proceed. To be there to help them when they are in need. 

So what’s the problem with being a trusted advisor with no leadership skills? The biggest issue is that these lawyers also run the business of a law firm. They have to manage teams, negotiate new work, and operate a business that may have hundreds of people depending upon these lawyers to be successful and profitable. I’ve heard more than one keynote speaker say that law firms are profitable despite the lawyers rather than because of the lawyers. It also fits the narrative of Richard Susskind and others who complain that it is hard to tell millionaires they are doing something wrong.

Professor Jolly tackles the topic of negotiation skills head-on. Lawyers must negotiate with their clients on the scope of the legal matter. That’s how prices and expectations are set. When the scope changes, then the lawyer and client are supposed to renegotiate the terms so that there is transparency on the work performed and the price paid. The problem?

“And most lawyers have done no negotiating training. And what I realized is that part of the problem here for law firms is you just haven’t been trained to negotiate. And you’re dealing with world-class negotiators, who not only have been trained to do it, they do it as part of their daily lives. And professionals are terrible at it. So your whole thing about the charging out of scope for billable hours. So often, we just avoid those difficult conversations. Because we don’t like conflict. We don’t like talking about that. And we sort of rather hope it’s all okay.”

Hope is not a strategy. But many of us see it happen all the time. 

So the moral of the story here is that we can’t just set up leadership training for law firm leadership and expect it to actually produce new skills in these lawyers. Professor Jolly actually adjusted his own approach to moving away from running leadership courses to more one-on-one coaching. And specifically for those who are in “genuine leadership positions in the legal world.” And one of the key pieces of that coaching is focusing on negotiation skills. 

The discussion between Professor Jolly, Keith Maziarek, and Chad Main has many more nuggets of information, so I highly recommend listening to all of it. But, I did want to point out the best comment that Professor Jolly mentioned about why some clients love the fact that their outside counsel tries so hard to avoid conflict and lack negotiation skills.

“The problem is because lawyers are so smart, they think they can use their cognitive capability to win in situations. And so often, I won’t tell the details of the story here, but one client said, “You know what, when I’m with my external counsel, it’s just so easy to negotiate with them.” He said “sometimes, you know, it’s like clubbing baby seals,” is the analogy he used. And I was shocked. It’s such a terrifying metaphor. But I think that law firms, because they rely on their intellect so much as lawyers, I think there’s a sense that we must be good at negotiating. But I think that’s the key problem.”

Check out more of the conversation at the Legal Value Network podcast, Professor Richard Jolly (Northwestern) & Keith Maziarek (Katten) on Legal Tech Adoption, Lawyers as Hedgehogs or Foxes and Why Narcissistic Personalities Help in the Law